I’m on a field course- get me out of here!

jungle picSo, it’s that time of year again; as the cold, damp, dark, weather sets in we look to warmer climes for escape and entertainment. So; Take 26 people, from all walks of life, throw them together in a tropical paradise to camp with bugs, beasts and cold-water showers for 10 days and watch the dynamics and lessons unfold….

Ok so we’re not exactly celebrities, we didn’t skydive into the savanna, or have Ant and Dec provide a narration to our every move, or eat blended kangaroo testicles (though incidentally on the same trip last year I did try ox testicles!), but we were a mixed group, many of whom were experiencing the tropics for the first time, and out of the luxury of their usual lives, forced to live together in tents for 10 days.

On our field course of Tropical Ecology in Kenya with our final year undergraduate students, I was struck once again by the sense of camaraderie and togetherness that the experience brought to us all.  Nothing like scanning each other for ticks to build trust! There is no comparison to learning through experience and that is exactly what we spent the week doing; from buffalo management and human wildlife conflict, to climate change and community development projects. I think that we are lucky in the field of ecology for these sorts of opportunities to present themselves that many other fields may not have; the chance to go out and live and experience our science.  I think it is really important for humanizing the science too- being able to interact and see how others problem solve under pressure or with limited resources; hard to gain in a one hour lecture twice a week or the odd practical.

We did have a few “Bushtucker” trials of our own though:

Sk-Hipp to the Loo

  • Dodge the giant grazing hippos in the dark to reach the bathroom without scaring them into crushing your campmate

The Hike of Hell

  • Walk for 3 hours in the grueling heat of the Equatorial midday sun with no shade and an Irish complexion, the trail littered with dead flamingoes.

Mystery Meat Curry

  • Might be goat, might be donkey; If you don’t think about it it’s fine!

Gorge-ous day for a climb

  • Creep along the perilous algal covered gorge slopes to reach the other side without falling to your death (or at least a lot of bruises)

What’s that bite?

  • It went from red bubble to blackish- green triangle: Hospital or Savlon?

Pothole Perils

  • Steer your overloaded minivan at high speed around the giant potholes without ending up in a ditch.

Prickly Plant Polka

  • Rash or puncture? Only one way to find out; walk through the forest in shorts and count the war wounds… And don’t lick the prickly pear en route

TenAnt trials

  • Try to pack a tent at 6am without disturbing the ants nest underneath

Pitch Perfect

  • The most frightening of all; stand up in front of your campmates to present an original research project idea for funding…

At least I can say that the public wasn’t voting people off the trip!

Author: Deirdre McClean, mccleadm[at]tcd.ie, @deirdremcclean1

Photo credit: Deirdre McClean

Still Life Results

flooded_forestWe have finally decided on the winner of the Still Life photography competition. The theme was ‘Changing Seasons’ and first place goes to the ‘flooded forest’ which is our featured image today. As the entries were anonymous we don’t know who submitted the image so please make yourself known and gather up the plaudits you so richly deserve.

Update: Our winner has come forward (see the comments). Congratulations to Aoibheann Gaughran of the TCD zoology department!

Author: EcoEvo@TCD

The Allure of Couzins: Self-organising collective groups

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Every now and then you stumble on a paper that changes everything for you. Typically something of a personal zeitgeist moment, it opens your eyes to a whole new world of potential and can spin your own research out in new directions, or encourage a complete re-orientation of your goals. In this new series, we are going to profile some of our favourite papers and maybe share the inspiration a little wider.

I don’t get out from behind my computer much, but when I do, my favourite engagement with real animals is to watch swirling flocks of starlings or trails of ants in search of food.

During my PhD I was working on the evolution of behaviours in social groups when I stumbled on a paper as I was searching through my supervisor Prof Graeme Ruxton’s publications. This was one of the first collective behaviour papers I read, and it was a huge eye-opener for me, pandering to both my love of biology and computers. Collective memory and spatial sorting in animal groups by Couzin, Krause, James & Ruxton brought home for the link between individual behaviour, self organisiation, emergent behaviour, complex biological pattern formation and how evolution could exploit this system and shortcut adaptive strategies without the need for invoking complex cognitive processes.

The concept itself wasn’t new: Craig Reynolds in 1986 demonstrated that interacting individual computer animals, which he termed boids, following three basic rules of separation, alignment and cohesion could generate a variety of complex group level patterns akin to biological swarming, shoaling and flocking. This simple computer simulation showed how the interactions themselves could create coordinated group-level behaviour without a need for centralized control, or for agents to possess any knowledge of their surroundings beyond their nearest neighbours. Instead, the patterns are an emergent property of the system of interacting agents that arise through a process of self-organisation. Craig Reynolds went further, and showed that information could be transmitted through the group so that obstacles (or predators) could be avoided by individuals responding to their neigbours avoidance, without having to actual see the obstacle or threat for themselves. Such characteristics have clear selection benefits in an evolutionary sense whereby there are cheap, effective ways to gain benefits of living in large collective groups.

What Couzin et al did was to show in even more detail the ecological and evolutionary relevance of these systems. They described in detail how subtle changes to individuals’ behaviours, manifested in adjustments to the radii that define whether they avoid, align or cohere with their neighbours, could arise in abrupt changes to the group-level pattern. A system dominated by attraction and avoidance tends to produce swarming behaviour around a relatively stationary point whereas one dominated by alignment produces shoals that move in a rather rigid, elongated diamond-like formation. In between there exists an intermediate state in which the group spontaneously starts to rotate in a torus (ring-doughnut) structure. The key point here is that no-one in these groups knows what a torus is, never mind how to achieve it, and nor is there a leader telling them to swim in a circle – rather, it is an inevitable consequence of the aggregation of the interactions between individuals with a mid-range tendency for alignment. An extra quirk to the system is that though the individuals are completely bereft of any brain or memory, the system shows evidence of memory – or hysteresis as physicists would refer to it. Individuals starting in a swarming pattern and increasing alignment will move through the rotating torus and on to the rigid diamond-like structure with individuals locked into a particular place in the group. However, if you start with the rigid structure, and reduce individuals’ tendency for alignment, they skip the torus structure and revert straight to swarming. In this manner, the group has memory of what it was doing in previous states, even though the individuals have no such memory. This is surely a rather cheap way for interacting ants, fish, birds, or maybe even the neurons of our brain to encode a sense of memory or history without having to explicitly encode and record the details of past states.

Perhaps most relevant from a behavioural ecology perspective, Couzin et al went further and explored how changes to an individuals behaviour relative to the group could alter its location. Increasing speed, decreasing turning rate or increasing one’s tendency for alignment would see an individual end up towards the front of the group. Reducing ones tendency for avoidance would see an individual move to the centre of the group. This is beautifully simple. Without any knowledge of the group structure, or where one is in the group, simple behavioural rules linked to internal state can now allow an individual to navigate the group. For example, if hungry, simply speed up and you will be at the front with first access to food. Once sated, you can seek out the relative safety of the middle by reducing your how much ‘personal space’ you require.

Prof Iain Couzin has gone on to show myriad intricacies of collective groups in terms of how they can make decisions as a group, and how locust swarms are driven by similar properties. During my PhD I had the pleasure to meet with Iain Couzin, study under the tutelage of Graeme Ruxton, share code with Richard James, and collaborate with Jens Krause (I didn’t get to meet the last author Nigel Franks, but now that I’m back on the conference tour there is still hope!)

Author

Andrew Jackson

Photo credit

wikimedia commons

Internal Affairs

Internal-Affairs

So for various reasons, one of which was being unsure of whether a PhD was for me, I found myself asking to work as an Intern with the good people in the Zoology Department at TCD. To give you a bit of background, I am a Zoology graduate with an MSc in Marine Biology, so not just some random bloke who happens to like animals and fancied chancing his arm. Anyway, I approached Dr. Ian Donohue whose research group interested me and thus began a 9 month Internship as a Research Assistant.

minion!

With a little trepidation and a great deal of excitement I began my stint as a minion with a site inspection for a proposed project looking at community structure in a rocky shore ecosystem. (Note to anyone who is interested in rocky shore ecology, I would advise not severely spraining your ankle the day before, it’s incredibly frustrating trying to navigate a boulder field while being unable to walk). Over the following weeks, I assisted in the field work required to set the project up. I thoroughly enjoy being outdoors so this suited me perfectly, although I must admit how lucky we were weather wise, it rained on only one day of 9 or 10 days we had out there so perhaps my love of the outdoors will diminish as soon as I’ve encountered some proper Irish weather!! Since then I have been involved in a range of projects from pilot studies on coevolution and trophic complexity of bacterial communities to feeding and respiration rates in Mysid shrimp, encompassing a range of laboratory and field techniques.

The learning doesn’t stop at the practical side of science either, merely by being involved in a working department I have learned more in the last 7 or 8 months about the ways of forging a career in science than I have done in my entire career to date. Our weekly journal club, NERD club was a bit of a revelation if I’m honest. Seeing how a collective of brilliant minds can come together and interact to assist with, develop and fine tune current and future work was an eye opener. It’s also an extremely beneficial way of encompassing different working groups/departments. The sharing of ideas, new techniques and sometimes just a different perspective can lead to a well-rounded project and/or person and is something I would definitely recommend in any institution.

I’ve also begun to build a network, something crucial to succeeding in science (and any workplace I guess!), and definitely not one of my strongest attributes. I was fortunate enough to attend the BES Macroecology conference in Nottingham in July and to display our work to the public during the Discover Research event in September, both of which were thoroughly enjoyable and valuable to furthering my development. I am an avid supporter of outreach programmes so to participate in what was an extremely successful night was most rewarding.

To anyone who is in a similar position to the one I was I would highly recommend contacting a Professor or otherwise and asking is there a job you can do for them. If like me, you are willing to do it for nothing other than your own benefit then there is no reason why they would not accept the offer. I have learned so much during my time here, added considerably to my skill set and most of all I now know that a) I would like to continue to work in an academic environment and b) that I am fully capable of doing a PhD. Whether I do or not depends on a number of factors, but that is for another day.

Author: Alain Finn, alfinn@tcd.ie, @finchyirl

Image Credit: http://nassauso.com/internal-affairs/, https://twitter.com/DM_Minions

 

 

 

 

Tropical Field Course Kenya

IMG_1564We’ve just returned from our annual Tropical Ecology Field Course in Kenya with our final year undergraduates. Our trip took us on a journey through the rift valley to the theme of biodiversity, conservation and sustainable livelihoods. Here are some of the sights of the trip:

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Visit to Lake Nakuru National Park where water levels have been on the rise creating these eerie tree graveyards!
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A Grey Crowned Crane on the shores of Lake Baringo where we were camping.
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A hike along the soda lake of Bogoria

 

 

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Maribou stork looks on
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Little fruit bats keeping a close eye on us!
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An olive baboon and her baby eyeing us suspiciously!
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The gorge at Hell’s Gate National Park, Naivasha- look out Simba!

 

Author: Deirdre McClean

Photo credits: Deirdre McClean and Ian Donohue

DOs and DO NOTs of moderation

making baby smileModeration is the art of “avoidance of extremes in one’s actions, beliefs, or habits”, according to dictionaries.  In academic meetings chances are to find a colorful mix of extremes ranging from big mouths to shy introverts, and making everyone’s voice heard can be quite challenging. In worst-case scenarios, even hearing one’s own voice can become problematic.

In order to make a group discussion productive, smooth and -why not? – fun, participants designate or invite a moderator to fill in the conductor’s role. He or she will have excellent people skills and professional knowledge, will know how to puck the right strings and will seek to achieve group consensus in the most timely and efficient manner. One step ahead of everyone in the group, the moderator will be able to lead the discussion to fertile grounds where every participant is given the opportunity to produce its best.

But there is something more about moderation. A group discussion also resembles a cogwheel: each piece, big and small, make the big machine move. The interesting part however is never the individual piece, no matter how big or small (mouth he or she is), but the whole machine: the final, shiny product ready to roll. These are group synergies produced by the group’s dynamic, which are the most important outcomes of an academic gathering. The essence of moderation therefore revolves around catching and following the group dynamic.

Importantly, just like a good conductor, the moderator should never try playing and conducting in the same time. Even saying it sounds confusing. The moderator has a far more important active job to do than playing. At the end of the meeting, there are one, two or three work objectives that have to be successfully, and thoroughly, met.

Scary as it may sound at first, you might have already pictured yourself in the moderator’s shoes. Question is: are you a natural born moderator? Maybe you already know the answer is yes. Alternatively, perhaps you just need a little more practice, like I do. You don’t know the moderator hiding in yourself until you haven’t tried it.

My supervisor asked me to moderate an Ignite Session discussion at the Ecology Society of America 2014 meeting in California.  Cautiously, she also suggested I should practice before, by moderating a group discussion about … moderation at a NERD club meeting at TCD. We gathered our ideas about what lies behind a successful moderation and what defines a successful moderator. I listed our thoughts in a cheat sheet below, where I contrast do’s and do not’s of moderation. Having it at hand can help you a great deal preparing for your first, second… however many moderation sessions you will lead.

At the Ignite Session in California, we had a houseful of people, and I only had to use about 5% of my moderator skills. We had questions flowing in for 45 minutes, after which we had to free the room and we moved the discussion closer to a couple of beers. Success! Phew, what an experience! I’m looking forward to the next one.



 

CLARITY DOs

State the topic, scope, objectives, expectations, rules at the very beginning

Speak up!

Make sure you repeat the audience’s questions so that everyone can hear.

Dig out your best communication skills

Be organized (have introduction, have end summary)

Be rigorous (keep people on track)

Keep it Simple! (simplify, reformulate, translate if necessary)

CLARITY DON’Ts

Ask long questions

Make confusing statements

Get confused and loose track

Get intimidated

PREPARATION DO’S

Have “conversation starters”, a list of questions

Have a global vision of the topic under discussion

Know your audience in advance

Get a hold of the logistics (microphone? assistants? co-moderator? recorder?)

But always be prepared for surprises, good and bad

Practice! Moderate a work group about … moderation! 

PREPARATION DON’T’S

Be superficial, unprofessional

Not have a clue about your audience

COMMUNICATION DO’S

Build on previous questions

Ask clarifying questions

Get out of the “rabbit holes” (self-explanatory topics)

Yes, do interrupt “silverbacks” and “prima donnas” (speakers who like hearing themselves)

Have supportive attitude

Calm down spirits

Maneuver spotlights wisely

Make conscious effort to involve each participant to make individual decisions and take independent actions.

Be inspiring

Employ strategies such as group work, “Think, Pair, Share” or “Speed Dating” to engage audience

Redirect people to e.g. Twitter to ask additional clarifying questions

COMMUNICATION DONT’S

Ask closed questions (e.g., to which the answer is obvious)

Shut down speakers

Be cynical

Ask controversial questions that may take days to solve

Have judgmental attitude

Embarrass & Humiliate

Put people on the spot

Force consensus

NEUTRALITY DO’S

Be neutral, make others debate

Treat everyone equally, make voices be heard

Be respectful

Pay attention to the gender balance

Keep the arguments balanced

NEUTRALITY DONT’S

Take sides

Engage in debates

Answer to provocative questions, argue

Express opinions

Participate in discussions

Share own views

EFFICIENCY DO’S

Be exact & short

Ask the right questions

Focus on the process no matter what

Have an excellent time management

Tackle not more than 3 broad topics

Persevere

Keep discussion alive

Use beeper if necessary to stop a speaker or close a topic and get to the next

EFFICIENCY DONT’S

Chit-chat

Ask meaningless questions

Make the discussion an endless story or soap opera

Ask “pressure mine” questions (put discussion on sidetrack)

Overstuff schedule

FOCUSED DO’S

Pay the highest level of attention

Practice the ability to think two things at the same time (current discussion & next questions)

Be quick witted

Hear everything

Keep track of the discussion

FOCUSED DONT’S

Get distracted, loose track

Get lost in details

Get lost in “rabbit holes” (shallow discussions)

ORGANISATION DO’S

To be able to synthesize, take notes along

Summarize periodically (at least provide a mid-summary)

Provide end summary

ORGANISATION DONT’S

Let the discussion flow endlessly

Loose audience

Loose end and scope

PERSONALITY DO’S

Be dynamic (follow the group dynamic)

Be flexible (do not stick to your pre-prepared questions)

Be creative!

Use your sense of humor

Be confident!

Be engaging!

PERSONALITY DONT’S

Be melancholic and sad

Be tired and depressed

Be bored

Be narrow-minded

Be rigid

Remember:

  • Moderation is an art, you need to use both people skills and professional knowledge.
  • The success of a discussion depends on how well prepared and competent you as a moderator are.
  • It is a very good idea to follow the group dynamic and obtain group synergies.

 

Author: Ana Maria Csergo, csergoa[at]tcd.ie

Photo credit: Safe Baby Handling Tips

‘By live voice’ – how to plan for and get through your viva

VE Day

“Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will not die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistence.” Daniel Burnham

The viva or thesis defence is a daunting obstacle. It’s built up so much that you feel as if your previous three years of work hinge on how you perform for one morning/afternoon. Despite all the reassurances I was offered I was hugely nervous before it. That said, some of the advice I received meant I wasn’t flying blind and could anticipate some of the questions.

It really is a help to have had some of your chapters published. It means two or three other academics have evaluated your ideas and thought them good enough for publication. This is not to say your examiners will ignore these parts, but remember they’re making sure you could perform as an academic and this is strong proof that you could.

Before the day, make a copy of the thesis you submitted and bring it with you to the viva. Have the pages with your figures on it highlighted. These sections are typically big discussion points because they capture the essence of your results. Read over it a couple of days beforehand too, but not the day before, keep that as a buffer to relax.

In terms of structure, the viva panel consists of an external examiner, an internal examiner and the chair. The extern is someone in your field but outside of your university. It is typically stipulated that they cannot have published with you or your supervisor so as to avoid bias. The intern comes from your department and has some knowledge of your field and again has not published with you. The extern takes the lead in asking the questions. The chair is there to make sure everyone keeps a civil tongue in their mouths and the whole event comes to a close after a reasonable time. A typical viva will last three hours.

The aim of the viva is to ensure you are capable of functioning as an academic, I’ve heard it being described as the ‘gateway into the scholarly community’. The expectation is firstly, that the work is mostly your own and secondly, that you have an appreciation of where your thesis fits in with the field at large. This means the questions you’re asked come at two levels, the specific and the general. You are the author so you’re best placed to know the specifics. If you have been helped with some aspect, such as the statistics, make sure you’ve an understanding of why it was done. The general questions are posed to test that you’re widely read in the area. So one question I had was ‘If I could ask God any question about vulture biology what would it be?’The tone of the viva should one of a scholarly discussion. Your examiners are not there to chew you up and spit you out again.

Recognise that your thesis is not the final word on the subject, admit to its shortcomings, and realise it could be improved upon. You can engage in civil debate if there’s a point of difference but don’t get argumentative. You may be asked, in hindsight what would you have done differently?

A good thesis supervisor will know that your work is good enough to get you through a viva with relative ease. Any significant problems will likely have been flagged well in advance. So despite all of your fears coming up to it, you’ll know you’re good enough to walk through those scholarly gates.

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This post drew on my own experience and the advice offered by the presenters of the BES Webinar ‘Surviving the viva’.

Author: Adam Kane, @P1zPalu, kanead[at]tcd.ie

Photo credit: dailymail.co.uk

 

A Spark of Science

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Why are some snakes more venomous than others? When did plate tectonics begin? What geological mysteries await our discovery on Mars? How do organisms build their own bodies? How do businesses manage biodiversity?

These are just some of the interesting and diverse Lightning Talks which were presented at a recent event in the School of Natural Sciences. Researchers from the disciplines of Botany, Geology, Geography and Zoology had just two minutes to present their work to colleagues and friends. The strict format created an interesting evening filled with bite-size chunks of science.

We were very lucky to have a great judging panel comprised of Professor Fraser Mitchell (Head of School), Donal Daly (Senior Scientific Officer at the EPA), Thomas Deane (Press Officer for Engineering, Maths and Science), Aoibheann Bird (Education and Outreach manager, Insight Centre for Data Analytics) and Diane McSweeney (Education team at the Science Gallery). The speakers were judged on their content, delivery and use of props. Prizes were kindly sponsored by the Trinity Foundation, the Science Gallery, the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland and the Graduate Student’s Union.

Botany PhD student, Brian Murphy, won first prize for his talk “A hidden force that will feed the world”. Brian’s research focuses on endophytes: fungi that live in the roots of plants that have great commercial potential for increasing crop yield in an eco-friendly and sustainable way. There were two runner up prizes: Kevin Healy for his talk on the evolution of snake venom (which also featured as part of the Science Gallery’s recent event, Dead Beats) and I won a prize for story about how looks can be deceiving in tenrecs. Other prize winners from the evening included Alwynne McGeever, Hannah Hamilton, Gary O’Sullivan and Mike Williams.

It was a great evening filled with lots of interesting talks and a good chance to find out about the diverse research in the School. Thanks to the fantastic organising committee: Jane Stout, Maria Long, Frances Leogue, Rachel Kavanagh, Tara Kelly, Clare Stead and Alwynne McGeever for making everything run so smoothly!

Videos of all the prizewinning talks can be found on the School’s YouTube channel.

Author: Sive Finlay, @SiveFinlay

Photo credit: wikimedia commons

Size isn’t everything: organising small conferences

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The late afternoon sky drizzled softly on Manchester. The pubs along Oxford Road gently creaked with the weight of workers sinking pints following a long week of doing whatever it is that people who work in Manchester do.  Sat in a beer garden, I relaxed and pondered the exceptionally busy previous 48 hours, the main feature of which had been the effective and successful running of a small conference. Having waved goodbye to 50 happy delegates, I had the time to reflect on what had made it successful.

The small conference in question was a joint meeting of two British Ecological Society special interest groups: Plants-Soils-Ecosystems and the Plant Environmental Physiology Group. Entitled ‘Carbon Cycling: from Plants to Ecosystems’, with its own snappy hashtag for the social media savvy (#psepepg), the conference took place over two days, attracted around 55 delegates, and featured three keynote speakers, 21 talks and 10 posters. After a lead-up lasting months, the two days of talking, problem-solving networking, coffee-drinking and chaperoning passed in a flash. My co-organisers, Ellen Fry, Sarah Pierce and I (I should emphasise that Ellen and Sarah did all of the really tricky bits of the organisation, like dealing with the budget and organising space and food), have received lots of positive feedback about the meeting since.

Lots of our delegates said that they’d liked the inclusive nature of the meeting. Its small size and demographic, comprised of many PhD students and early-career researchers with a generous smattering of more senior academics, meant delegates could be confident of having a chance to speak to everyone over the coffee breaks and lunches. With just 21 talks, we could be generous with coffee breaks, providing plenty of opportunities for people to chat and particularly for early-career researchers to interact with our keynote speakers. The format worked well and had been tested previously, at a similar meeting last year; it was helpful to have Sarah on the organising committee, because she’d co-organised that conference. Another important issue is access for disabled delegates – something that we probably didn’t address well enough and will certainly be higher up the agenda next time.

There as little I could do ‘on the ground’ (jobs like scoping out the rooms, organising poster boards, booking the food) from Dublin, so I contributed by promoting the conference on social media and various email lists, and designing the abstract submission process and programme booklet. Google Forms provided a straightforward, free method for collecting abstracts online: each response on the form was sent to a Google Docs spreadsheet, making it very easy to keep track of abstracts and, importantly, difficult to lose them. All the abstracts were in one place and in roughly the same format, ready to slot into the programme booklet. The only stressful element of the process was that, with a week to go, we’d still only received a handful of abstracts, mostly for posters – cue more frantic promotion! Of course, everyone submitted their abstracts on the last day before the deadline. We had a similar experience getting people to register for the conference, using Eventbrite – the deadline had to be extended several times. Academics, it seems, don’t like to commit (though I suspect a lot of the late additions were a result of summer holidays and fieldwork seasons – timing is important)! One thing to note is that, for many academics with families, travelling on a weekend is not an option.

So what are the perks of organising a small conference for the PhD student or early-career researcher?

  • They’re relatively easy to set-up, particularly through a society like the British Ecological Society. There are lots of people with expertise who can help.
  • You get lots of interaction, including taking the keynote speakers out for pre-conference beers, and of course chatting with all the delegates. It’s a great way of getting a snapshot of the research currently happening in your field.
  • Providing you have people who are willing to help, the organisation need not take over your life, though it probably will for the couple of weeks prior to the conference. Bearing this in mind, as long as the meeting stays small, the benefits outweigh the temporary hassle, and it’ll look great on your CV.

What went well?

  • Everybody came – we had no drop-outs, and one person came all the way from the USA!
  • We included panel discussions at the end of each four talk session, and these worked surprisingly well – I think the inclusive atmosphere at the meeting contributed to this.
  • As well as three organisers, we had enough unofficial helpers, in the form of PhD students and post-docs at the University of Manchester, who could be roped in to help out with running the registration desk and shepherding delegates.
  • Facilities existed for recording the talks, so we took advantage of this and put the talks online – a handy resource for people who couldn’t make it.
  • Live-tweeting the conference, and packaging the tweets up afterwards as a curated Storify story, seemed to be popular.

What was difficult?

  • Elements of the abstract submission / registration process were slightly fraught due to their last-minute nature. I’m glad that we allowed plenty of time for these: abstract submission two months in advance, registration one month in advance, and keynote speakers confirmed three months in advance.
  • Getting the food right turned out to be a nightmare for Ellen, who had to do battle with the catering department. It’s worth thinking about the format of food you’d like people to eat – something that is quick to dish out and mobile is best for interaction.
  • Although the venue was generally excellent, there was one stumbling block in the form of a door between the auditorium and the posters / food that could only be opened by certain people, which lead to a lot of ferrying delegates to and fro.
  • A broken-down train on the morning of the second day prevented some of our delegates from arriving on time, but luckily we were able to shuffle the schedule around so that nobody missed their chance to present.

Organising small conferences can be exhausting, but it’s also great fun and a very good way of meeting lots of people and broadening / deepening your network. I thoroughly recommend it!

Author: Mike Whitfield, michael.whitfield[at]tcd.ie

This post also appears on Mike Whitfield’s blog.

Photo credit: flickr/uelwebteam, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence